Toni Basil. Photograph by Daniella Hehmann

Toni Basil, Dancing through the Decades

Quentin Tarantino called her the “Goddess of Go-Go.” Indeed, when the acclaimed director hired dancer, choreographer, singer, and actress Toni Basil to make dances for his 2019 film, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, choosing Basil was a no-brainer. After all, this polymath, who was born in 1943 and is still going strong at 77, not only has cred in the swinging ‘60s, but has also been relevant for six—count ‘em, yes six—decades.

Born in Philadelphia to a bandleader father, Louis Basilotta, and vaudevillian mother, Jacqueline Jessica Anderson, Basil may not have literally been born in a trunk, but from 1947-1957 she did watch from the wings—doing chaînés, no less—as her parents performed on the stage of the Windy City’s legendary Chicago Theatre. Experiencing acts of all stripes, including the hoofing Step Brothers, singer Pearl Bailey and comic Henny Youngman, Basil, whose birth name is Antonia Christina Basilotta, then decamped with her family to Vegas, where her father began performing at the Sahara Hotel.

After graduating from high school in that glitzy burg, this show biz baby began a career that could be deemed nothing less than sensational. An assistant choreographer and dancer on Shindig! as well as for The T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, where she studied the moves of soul singer James Brown, that year was particularly fruitful for Basil. Appearing in the films, Viva Las Vegas, Pajama Party and Robin and the 7 Hoods, she finished the decade also acting in Sweet Charity and Easy Rider.

Moving easily between dancing and being a thespian, in 1971 Basil co-founded the seminal street dance group the Lockers, with Don Campbell, whose eponymous “locking” moves jump-started the genre. Their ground-breaking appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1976, merging ballet with street dance in their version of “Swan Lake,” was nothing less than audacious.

Earlier that decade, Basil choreographed the 1973 film American Graffiti, before beginning long-term relationships with David Bowie, making the moves for his “Diamond Dogs” tour in 1974, as well as working with Bette Midler on The Rose in 1979, a collaboration that continues to this day.

Kicking off the 1980s as only Basil could, she choreographed and co-directed with David Byrne the music video, “Once in a Lifetime,” by the Talking Heads. And then came the Grammy-nominated song “Mickey,” her recording that shot to number 1 in 1982, with the video release—one of MTV’s first—featuring Basil clad in cheerleader attire from her Vegas High School days. (In 2009, VH1 ranked “Mickey” number 5 on its list of the 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders and was eventually installed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Riding high in the decade of even higher hair and bigger shoulder pads, Basil recorded two albums and continued to choreograph for films, including Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), as well as re-uniting with Bowie for his “Glass Spider” tour in 1987. The indefatigable multi-hyphenate then ushered in the ‘90s by acting in four films, including the horror/comedy Rockula, while continuing to choreograph for movies such as Mobsters (1991) and That Thing You Do! (1996). Moving headfirst into the 21st century, Basil maintained a steady pace, making celluloid dances for Legally Blonde (2001) and Charlie Wilson’s War, in 2007.

Her honors have also been voluminous: Basil snagged an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography for The Smothers Brothers in 1988; she received the Bob Fosse Award for Choreography Achievement in Episodic Television for Pearl (1997); and in 2009 she took home Hip Hop International’s Living Legend Award.

I had a chance to catch up with the entertainer by phone from her home in Los Angeles, where she chatted up a storm about her singular career, which also included choreographing and co-directing concerts for Tina Turner, Mick Jagger and David Lee Roth.

How close were you to your parents and was there ever a time when you didn’t want to be in show business?

My parents were very focused on my career and my mother took me to dance class every day of my life. I loved it. And what could be better than walking down to the stage door of the Chicago Theatre where people were waiting to get autographs. That door would open and we’d go in like we were Moses. My mother’s brother had an act—Billy Wells and the Eclair twins, from 1914-1925—and I found a silent film of about 45 seconds of them dancing that took my breath away. Later [the act became] Billy Wells and the Four Fays. My mother was in the act and my aunt Christine had the act going until 1964 [when] they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, the same show the Beatles premiered on.

Show biz baby: Toni’s mother and her two aunts

What was it like working with Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret on Viva Las Vegas?

I had worked with David Winters as his assistant choreographer on The T.A.M.I. Show and then on the Elvis movie. I would teach him Ann’s part and when we brought them together, they already knew their parts. I used to partner with Elvis and loved working with him. He was a hard worker, focused.

One day David and I didn’t have a car to get to the Coronet Theatre, which had a famous jazz class with movie stars and the best dancers in town and was like a big social event. Elvis took us in his Rolls and dropped us off. We started the class and in mid-warmup Elvis came up the stairs and stood in the doorway and then he left. Everybody kept dancing because they were professional.

Why did he come up? He was looking over Sue Lyon [star of the 1962 film, Lolita] because she was taking class. I liked him but not his group of Southern boys [the Memphis Mafia]. I went up to the house once and I was very bored. There were a lot of girls sitting around with nobody talking. Elvis would play pool with the guys, but I was not interested in that group of people and at that time I was living with [actor] Dean Stockwell—and I was about to have an affair with Mick Jagger. I have [had] the A-list of boyfriends.

You co-founded the Lockers in 1971, with the group going on to open and tour with Frank Sinatra, including performances at Carnegie Hall, as well as opening for Funkadelic at Radio City Music Hall. You also made countless television appearances with them. How important was the Lockers to the history of dance and did we have to have the Lockers to get where we are today?

We would have gotten somewhere but not to the same place, maybe. I think what the Lockers did is it showed street dance was a viable art form because when Don created the “Campbellock” it was performance-oriented. When we went to the clubs we would partner dance and do the Bump. When there was more room on the dance floor, people who were bigger dancers would start to theatrically dance. Don’s dancing was performancy and show-offy. It wasn’t social.

That group, I think, was the first group—other than the Nicholas Brothers or Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers—to do that, because all the dancers were dancing behind someone [like] Carol Burnett or behind a singer. We were a dance group that hadn’t happened in years—since vaudeville—that didn’t need to dance behind a singer. We had power moves, we looked funky, we were crazy. Everybody in the group was extremely talented.

Boogaloo Sam, when he saw us on TV he put together the Electric Boogaloos [in 1977] and performed on Soul Train. Would that have happened in the way it happened? Would they have formed a group? It was important that Don Campbell had us and presented us as the Lockers. He gave us a great announcement. I think the “Swan Lake” piece made a big difference, too. Oh my god, this dance and this quality of street dancer could stand next to a classical dancer. That was a mic drop. I always thought there weren’t a lot of people who had guidance the way I had—street dance, classical and a background in vaudeville and show business.

How do you choreograph for icons such as Tina Turner, David Bowie and Bette Midler? What is your process?

I always do pre-production with them. You know the direction and you know how they work and I had worked with them multiple times. They all have an intense pre-production process. Sometimes I would contribute more set-wise. With [Bowie’s] “Diamond Dogs,” the set was finished, but there was a concept of what David was going to do. He had brought me to England to meet him and we talked. I was wearing peg pants, so he created a whole different look for himself with peg pants. He also sent me to see “The Rocky Horror Show,” which had just opened, with Tim Curry, on the West End, and we talked about that.

I got another call to meet him in New York and had brought a Man Ray image. I talked about a big silhouette across buildings, and in his hotel room there was a model of buildings. That’s how we opened the show, with him in silhouette, huge across the buildings. On opening night, he gave me a brochure and he had given me co-direction credit. It was wonderful. We had some amazing times creating.

[As for working with Bette Midler] I know every step she can do and I rework them. And we have the same taste. With Bette it’s not just working with steps, but with concepts and ideas. Again, the most fun we have in preparing the show is pre-production.

With Tina [Turner], you’re reinventing what people want to see, because she’s the only person I’ve ever seen where the audience will stand up when she starts to do, “Proud Mary,” and she does that arm move. I’d never seen that, other than with Tina Turner, where people are doing the move. The audience loves repeated moves, so with her, you want to do what she’s known for. There’s never been anything better than Tina Turner and the Ikettes.

Some acts get a little panicky, but the great ones always relished trying things and developing things and never questioning that they’d get there. All of these people I worked with—and I was so lucky to work with them—I would come out ahead of the game.  

Fast forward to 2018 and you get a call from your agent saying that an anonymous filmmaker from an unidentified production company wanted to talk. That man turned out to be none other than Quentin Tarantino. What was it like working with him and making the two dances in the film?

Working with Quentin was a dream job. Every time I was with him I was so excited and so grateful. I would always think, “You deserve this, Toni,” because it was about the ’60s. It was so thrilling to me to be able to reach back and contribute to this movie—and he knew about Hullabaloo and that I was the assistant choreographer on Shindig.

I worked with Margot [Robbie, who played Sharon Tate in the film] at my house, training her in all the dance styles from the ’60s, so that she had things to pull out. She danced a little bit here, a little bit there, but it had to be improvisational. At the party scene, they’re just social dancing, but it was from that era. As far as the one with Leonardo, we worked on different ideas and I’d film them and show them to Quentin and he’d say yes, no, that kind of thing.

But he didn’t know that I knew Sharon or that I dated Jay Sebring [her celebrity hairdresser depicted in the film by Emile Hersch]. It was an extra bonus I brought to that movie. You can’t pull the wool over Quentin’s eyes. He even danced “the Freddie” [moves popularized by Freddie & The Dreamers] and there aren’t a lot of people who know that dance. He also has a photographic memory that was unbelievable.

What do you think of today’s young dancers and choreographers and how do you think Covid will have changed the landscape?

Well, there are more dancers than there are jobs—and the same for choreographers. But as long as the street dance community continues to improvise, it will continue to evolve. When the Lockers were on TV I don’t think we ever dreamed that internationally people would be battling and locking and there would be six or seven other dances that would have come after us. And they keep continuing.

With Covid, they’re still doing battles, but online. The kids are really missing the face-offs and the boxing ring type of thing. In Amsterdam there’s Summer Dance Forever, an international hip-hop festival and the battles go on for a week in the most beautiful studios. I taught master classes when I was there in 2016 and there were 20 classes a day for three days straight. If you wanted to lock, you could learn how to lock from the greatest lockers. This year it was virtual and they recorded me talking about the history of locking and waacking.  

You’ve called your career eclectic. What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?

I did a Webinar Zoom last June where I showed videos and taught class. It was two hours with five parts [featuring] the dance crazes of the ’60s. I had a great time and we’re thinking of doing it again with some edits. I thought social media was going to leave me behind, but I’ve had videos go viral. I have my YouTube channel [ToniBasilsHouse] and I never get a bad comment. I have no bullies and the only negative stuff I’ve ever gotten, which was when I put up Miley Cyrus singing “Mickey,” and they said, “You sing it better.”

Last year CBS Sunday Morning did an interview with me and I would like them to do a Netflix documentary—something that reaches a wide audience. I’d also like do a [cabaret] show, because I can still perform. [Meanwhile,] I have to keep dancing. I made my garage into a studio and dance every day. My memory of dance is still good—I think I’m becoming a savant—but I still can’t find my keys!

For me, there’s nothing I like to do more than dance [except] to talk about it. Somebody pointed out that I was on the cutting edge of every decade of pop culture. How lucky am I? Of course, what I’d really like to do is some kind of celebrity endorsement for mature dancing people. I could be an ambassador for Ben-Gay or Centrum Silver because I’m still dancing and I look good.

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